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The Heist of the Century

Words by Peter Iantorno

The incredible story of how Leonardo Notarbartolo, ringleader of the infamous crime gang the School of Turin, pulled off one of the most audacious robberies ever.

A police helicopter hovers ominously overhead, building-mounted security cameras swivel and zoom to scan the area, and two police officers in a bulletproof-glass booth watch on as an armored truck packed with De Beers’ latest shipment of diamonds rolls into the exclusive Antwerp Diamond District.

Waving the truck through, one of the officers pushes a button to lower the heavy steel bollards blocking its path. As the truck moves inside the restricted zone, the bollards are immediately raised from the floor blocking any more vehicles from entering. Outside the Antwerp Diamond Centre, the truck grinds to a halt and armed guards form a perimeter around it, as boxes upon boxes of priceless gems are unloaded and taken inside.

The diamonds are hurried directly into safety-deposit boxes, which are locked with both a key and combination, and then placed in the high-security vault – an underground chamber fitted with motion, heat and light detectors and sealed with a three-tonne steel door that is rated to withstand 12 hours of continuous drilling.

As the door is slammed shut, its many rigorous security systems are activated. First, a combination wheel that requires four numbers from zero to 99 (leaving around 100 million possible combinations) is set; then a seismic alarm, triggered by any major vibrations, is activated; next, a magnetic field is armed, which triggers an alarm if the door is opened and can be deactivated only with a secret code; and finally, an almost metre-long key is used to turn the giant deadbolts of the lock. How ever you look at it, robbing the Antwerp Diamond Centre is impossible. At least that was the verdict of master thief, Italian Leonardo Notarbartolo, who, in 2001, was paid 100,000 euros by a jewellery collector he’d previously sold his loot to, simply to answer the question.

For this generous fee, Notarbartolo, who rented his own safety deposit box to store his ill-gotten gains in the building’s impregnable vault, compiled a surveillance package detailing the kind of challenges facing anyone who would be brave (or foolish) enough to attempt a break-in, and he came to the conclusion that – no matter how skillful – no thief would be able to slip in and out of the vault undetected.

Having reported back his findings and placed the cash securely in his safety deposit box, Notarbartolo assumed this to be the end of the matter, until some five months down the line, when he got a phone call from the collector, requesting a meeting at an abandoned warehouse outside of Antwerp. No stranger to dodgy deals in abandoned warehouses, and still feeling the financial benefits from his previous dealings with the collector, Notarbartolo agreed.

As he entered the dilapidated warehouse, Notarbartolo was greeted by the jeweller and introduced to three men who were standing in what appeared to be a bank vault. Walking around the vault, it soon became clear to the Italian that what he was standing in was, in fact, an exact replica of the Diamond Centre’s vault, with every detail precisely as he remembered from his reconnaissance mission. The jeweller then proceeded to talk Notarbartolo through exactly how he and his crew planned on breaking into the real Antwerp Diamond Centre Vault, and for every question, he had an ingenious solution. The vault lock with a million possible combinations? all they needed was a hidden camera and the resident lock-picking genius could do the rest. The heat, light and motion sensors? Easy to get around with a bit of women’s hair spray and basic school electronics knowledge. The giant key? A piece of cake to replicate for their old-hand key forger. Ocean’s Eleven had nothing on these guys.


But why did the jeweller pick Notarbartolo for the robbery? Well, quite simply, the Italian was born to be a thief. Even as a child, he stole from everyone from his teachers to the milkman, and as he grew up, he began to get bigger in his ambitions, conning jewellery salesmen and later assembling a team of thieves, all with specific talents, to pull off more ambitious jobs. The team would be known as La Scuola di Torino (the school of Turin), and go on to become one of the most infamous criminal organisations ever, pulling off many millions worth of robberies over the years. So in Notarbartolo, who was in his mid-50s at the time and very much the confidence man of the group, there was no better man for the job.

Notarbartolo agreed to the robbery, on the condition that he could bring in one of his own men, known only as Speedy, to help with the driving. Against his better judgement, and in what would later turn out to be an extremely costly decision for Notarbartolo, the jeweller agreed, and the job was on.

On Valentine’s Day 2003, the day before the robbery, Notarbartolo gained access to the vault to open his own safety deposit box. He’d done this many times before, so the guard was used to his visits and paying little attention. However, when the guard was looking away, Notarbartolo approached the heat and motion sensor, took out a can of hair spray he’d concealed in his jacket pocket and sprayed a thin coat of the women’s hair product directly onto the sensor. The point of no return had just been passed. If he was caught now, Notarbartolo would have some serious questions to answer about why he was tampering with the security system, so he quickly closed his security box, thanked the guard and made for the exit. Phase one was complete.

The following evening, the gang made their move. In the dead of night, Notarbartolo drove the team to an office building at the rear of the Diamond Centre, where Speedy plus the jeweller’s three men hopped out, leaving Notarbartolo alone in the car to keep watch.

They broke into the building without issue, walking through the private back garden and, from there, climbing up a ladder to a second-floor terrace of the Dimaond Centre. The first obstacle they faced was a heat-sensing infrared detector on the terrace. This was taken care of with the use of a homemade polyester shield, which, when placed in front of the sensor, blocked the gang’s body heat.

Next, the terrace alarm was disabled, and the thieves were able to climb through the window into the stairwell, then make their way down to the vault. They quickly covered the security cameras with black bin liners and set to work on the main challenge: the vault door. The first thing to take care of was the electromagnetic field, which was deactivated in the most ingenious of ways, with a custom-made aluminium block, which was placed on the right side of the vault door, enabling the gang to unscrew the door’s bolts and open the door without breaking the electromagnetic field.

Next the gang got lucky. Although the master key maker had reproduced the giant key needed to turn to vault’s lock, there was no guarantee he’d got it exactly correct, so when the gang chanced upon the original key hanging in a utility room next to the vault, it was a gift too good to turn down.

But that would all be in vain if they couldn’t crack the code, and with any one of a million combinations to choose from, that was no easy task. However, in one of Notarbartolo’s previous visits to the vault, he’d managed to install a hidden camera and the guard had unwittingly already supplied them with the code. They turned the key, punched in the four digit code, and they were in.

Even at this stage, the job was far from done, as the thin layer of hairspray Notarbartolo had used to block the heat and motion sensors was liable to wear off at any time. So without wasting a second, the electronics specialist reached into the roof, pulling out the wiring to the sensor system, and rewiring it to bypass the sensors. At the same time, another gang member took care of the light sensor with a simple piece of masking tape. The men then set about the long and laborious task of individually drilling into as many security boxes as they could manage, quickly throwing the contents into large duffel bags. They stayed for as long as they dared, but police would later find thousands of dollars worth of cash and gold strewn around the floor. Clearly, the pickings were not slim.

As Notarbartolo and the gang made their escape, it seemed like they’d executed the perfect heist: $100 million-worth of cash, and diamonds in a single night. But a single lapse would later go on to get him caught by the police, and cost him his freedom.

On the long drive back to Turin, Speedy became anxious and insisted that they needed to dump the incriminating evidence in the back of the car as soon as possible, whereas Notarbartolo wanted to take it to France and then burn it. But tired and willing to do anything to shut a panicky Speedy up, Notarbartolo finally agreed and they dumped the empty bags under a flyover on the E19 heading out of Belgium.

Unfortunately for Notarbartolo, a disgruntled property owner reported the pair for flytipping, and the police investigated, finding not only the empty bags from the jewellery, but also a half-eaten salami sandwich covered in Notarbartolo’s DNA and the receipt for a camera in Notarbartolo’s name. After raiding his house, police found 17 polished diamonds. Subsequently Notarbartolo was arrested, and at trail he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Of his accomplices, Speedy and one other served five-year sentences for the crime, but none of the others were ever caught, and where Notarbartolo is from, snitching to get a lesser sentence doesn’t even come into consideration.

He’s since been released from prison on parole, and although he was suspected of the 2013 Brussels Airport diamond robbery, in which up to $50 million was stolen, no evidence was ever found to link him to the crime, and police pursued other suspects.

The description of how these events transpired came straight from the horse’s mouth, as Notarbartolo himself gave an interview to Wired from inside the Belgian prison where he served his sentence. However, it’s important to bear in mind that a confidence man such as Notarbartolo is always liable to embellish the truth slightly.

To this day he maintains that the gang only actually stole $20 million, and the remaining $80 million the police claim went missing can actually be put down to an insurance scam. Only a fraction of the loot was ever recovered, so it is certainly feasible, but unless someone catches Notarbartolo red-handed dipping into his stash up in the Italian hills, we’ll never know for sure.

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